Congo Moves to Protect Rights of Indigenous Communities.
New legislation is set to come into force in the Republic of Congo regarding the rights of the indigenous forest people in the country. Along with the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) is one of the first countries on the continent to specify legal protection for indigenous communities.
Almost 10% of the population of Congo is made up of indigenous people. These groups include the Baaka, Mbendjele, Mikaya, Luma, Gyeli, Twa and Babongo, often collectively known as 'Pygmies'. In the past, these indigenous communities were very often forced into forced labour and slavery in their home country, as well as excluded from the education and health systems, resulting in high levels of illiteracy and poverty.
It has taken almost seven years to formulate the legislation, as the question of what constitutes 'indigenous' has been debated at length. But, a bill enforcing the rights of the indigenous people of Congo was finally passed by the senate and the general assembly at the end of 2010 and came into effect on 25th February. The hope is that the new law will go some way towards reducing discrimination and marginalisation. As well as health and education, the new law covers property, culture and legal rights. Although there are concerns that legal rights will be difficult to implement unless some form of legal aid scheme is put in place.
The Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) has welcomed the move. Programmes manager, Francesca Thornberry said:
''The passage of this law is a huge step forward for the protection of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities in Congo, as well as indigenous people's rights in Africa.''
The UN too, said it was a significant step forward, but as Mr Anaya pointed out:
''Effective administration of the law will require a strong and concerted effort by government authorities at all levels, especially in the light of the extreme circumstances of disadvantage that indigenous peoples in the Congo still face.''
There is no doubt that the legislation is a move in the right direction and the hope now is that other African countries will follow in Congo's footsteps and enact similar laws.